“We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun. We are not afraid of the darkness. We trust that the moon shall guide us. We are determining the future at this very moment. We know that the heart is the philosopher’s stone. Our music is our alchemy.” ~ Saul Williams
Shrouded in mystery and steeped in mysticism, Alchemy is the art and science of transformation. The multi-leveled, symbol-rich philosophy of the ages functions both on an exoteric (practical) and esoteric (spiritual) level.
At its most literal, alchemy was the chemical quest to create the Philosopher’s stone—a legendary substance derived from a series of laboratory processes, known as the The Magnum Opus, The Great Work, or simply The Art. The Philosopher’s Stone was said to be the agent of gold transmutation, and the key ingredient in the creation of the fabled elixir of life, said to heal all diseases, induce longevity and even immortality.
Yet it’s clear from the ancient sacred texts, known as the Corpus Hermeticum—upon which alchemy’s Hermetic principals are based—that gold transmutation is but the tip of the iceberg, as well as a symbolic teaching, of what is essentially a philosophical and mystical tradition. The Philosopher’s Stone can be, and often is, viewed metaphorically.
“[T]he Stone is a symbol of incorruptible wisdom achieved by uniting both rational, intellectual thinking (masculine, right brain activity) with our intuitive knowing of the heart (feminine, left brain activity).” (Alchemy & The Philosopher’s Stone.)
“The idea of the ‘primal material’ was developed by Aristotle and refers to the idea that there is a primordial matter that lies behind all forms, but that is itself invisible. It is the womb of creation, the field of pure potentiality, but it only gains existence, in the strictest sense, when given form.”
Mistlberger continues: “In the alchemical process, the primal material is that which remains when something has been reduced to its essence and can be reduced no further.”
From a mystical perspective, “essence” is also commonly associated with the soul.
“Psychologically,” Mistleberger adds, “this is a potent symbol for the inner process of transformation in which we regularly arrive at ‘core realizations’ that cannot be deconstructed further, but that themselves become the ground for successfully moving forward in life—‘integrating’ as we evolve.”
Certainly such high-level claims as gold transmutation and immortality elixirs made alchemy ripe for abuse from charlatans. Its cryptic language and oblique symbolism only aided sham-peddling swindlers with the perfect smoke screen behind which to operate mysteriously.
Fraudulent claims drove The Art into disrepute—Dante reserves a special place in his Inferno for alchemists—and the modern materialist mind is often quick to dismiss alchemy as an arcane jumble of smoke and mirrors hogwash. Though it isconsidered a protoscience for modern chemistry due to its establishment of basic chemical procedures (the most notable being distillation), its discovery ofphosphorus, antimony and bismuth, and preparation of nitric, hydrochloric andsulphuric acid.
The real “gold,” however, seems to lie in the deeper, spiritual heritage of Alchemy. The mystical truths preserved in its archetypal imagery and symbolism still serve as an allegorical map for seekers today.
“Only through discovering alchemy,” notes pioneering Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, “have I clearly understood that the unconscious is a process and that ego’s rapport with the unconscious and his contents initiates an evolution, more precisely, a real metamorphosis of the psyche.”
While the imagery associated with alchemy can be bafflingly surreal and even disturbing, every detail holds symbolic meaning that becomes coherent when viewed through an allegorical lens.
The 7 Stages (or Operations) of Alchemy give insight into many of these symbols. The system is thought to be based largely on the ancient text, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes—the jewel in the crown of the Corpus Hermeticum. The first translation dates back to the 13th century, though its origin is suspected to go as far back as the 2nd century or older.
The 7 Stages, undertaken with the goal of the Philosopher’s Stone (both literal and metaphorical), are as follows:
1.Calcination. (“Its father is the sun.” ~ The Emerald Tablet of Hermes)
Chemically, this initial stage involves heating the substance over an open flame and burning away the first layer of impurities.
“Psychologically,” remarks Dennis William Hauk, an Internationally recognized expert on alchemy research, “this is the destruction of the ego and our attachment to material possessions. Calcination is usually a natural humbling process as we are gradually assaulted and overcome by the trials and tribulations of life, though it can be a deliberate surrender of our inherent hubris [igniting] the fire of introspection and self-evaluation.”
“In spiritual symbolism, this stage is sometimes humorously referred to as ‘cooking’ or ‘baking’ (and in fact the prime symbol of this stage is fire),” observes P.T. Mistlberger in “Psycho-Spiritual Alchemy.“
Spiritually, Adam McClean points out in his essay Birds in Alchemy, “thenigredo indicates the initial stages of the alchemist’s encounter with his inner space, through withdrawing from the outer world of the senses in meditation, and entering what is initially the dark inner world of the soul,”
Symbolized by crows, ravens, toads, sculls and skeletons—as well as the alchemist in his own burning flask or cauldron—philosophically, this stage represents the breaking down of old structures. Called the nigredo, or “blackening,” Calcination involved putrefaction and decomposition of the alchemical substances—a “trial by fire” that psychologists often equate with theDark Night of the Soul, the death of old aspects of the self and confrontation with the shadow within.
2. Dissolution (“Its mother is the moon.”)
Also called the albedo, or “whitening,” the second stage, was said to result from the washing (ablutio, baptisma) of the products of the nigredo. Chemically, this phase denotes the dissolving of the ashes from Calcination in water. Often symbolized by a white swan or a white eagle, Dissolution marks a time of emotional cleansing, a purification through catharsis and letting go.
“It is, for the most part, an unconscious process,” details Dennis William Hauck, “in which our conscious minds let go of control to allow the surfacing of buried material. It is opening the floodgates and generating new energy from the waters held back. Dissolution can be experienced as “flow,” the bliss of being well-used and actively engaged in creative acts.”
“This stage is often characterized by experiencing the emotion of grief,” adds P.T. Mistlberger, “and allowing ourselves to truly grieve painful incidents from our past that we may have long buried.
“A key to the stage of Dissolution is the awakening of passion, and the harnessing of the energy of emotional pain toward an object of creativity. We do not just passively witness the reality of our inner pain; we redirect its energy, wedding it to our authentic personal desires and constructive aims.”
“It is that stage of catharsis after some intense experience of being consumed in the crucible,” details Adam McLean, “when we glimpse the appearance, however fragmentary, of a new possibility —a flickering light in our souls which draws us towards its promise of change.”
3. Separation (“The wind carries it in its belly.”)
Chemically, according to Hauk, this stage marks “the isolation of the components of Dissolution by filtration and then discarding any ungenuine or unworthy material.
“Psychologically, this process is the rediscovery of our essence and the reclaiming of dream and visionary ‘gold’ previously rejected by the masculine, rational part of our minds. It is, for the most part, a conscious process in which we review formerly hidden material and decide what to discard and what to reintegrate into our refined personality.”
The Separation stage, much as its name suggests, denotes a time of discernment and taking stock. ”In this stage,” notesMistlberger, “we begin to see what is of value in our life, and what is not.”
“Chemically,” Hauk tells us, “it is the recombination of the saved elements from Separation into a new substance…”
“Psychologically, it is empowerment of our true selves, the union of both the masculine and feminine sides of our personalities into a new belief system or an intuitive state of consciousness. The alchemists referred to it as the Lesser Stone, and after it is achieved, the adept is able to clearly discern what needs to be done to achieve lasting enlightenment, which is union with the Overself. Often, synchronicities begin to occur that confirm the alchemist is on the right track.”
The divided self, often represented by a king and queen, now purified and healed—is reunited, producing filius philosophorum, or “the philosopher’s child,” a magical, hermaphroditic babe, representing the reborn, integrated self.
“Esoteric alchemy proposes,” Mistlberger elaborates, “that what is left if the first three stages of calcination, dissolution, and separation have been properly undergone is a state wherein we can more clearly mediate between our ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’.
“In this sense ‘soul’ refers to our embodied spirit, the part of our essential nature that is fully on Earth, and ‘spirit’ refers to our most rarefied connection with the divine, transcendental Source. These two are sometimes categorized as the divine feminine (soul) and the divine masculine (spirit). The combining of the two is the essence of inner tantra, a sacred marriage of spiritual opposites.”
The integration of the active, “impregnating” principal of divine spirit is often depicted as the masculine sun, or Sol, while the receptive principal of the body receiving that spirit infusion is represented by the feminine moon, or Luna. Below these aspects integrate via the symbolic sexual union of Sol and Luna.
“In conjunction, fears melt,” adds Nephtalia Leba in her essay “Alchemical Transformation.” “The old scripts that played in our head that said we ‘must’ or we ‘should’ are quieter, if not gone. There is more joy now. We begin to see the world more clearly. The acts we do choose to engage in – even the mundane acts – take on a greater delight.”
5. Fermentation (“Separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great Ingenuity.”)
Chemically, Fermentation is the growth of a ferment (bacteria) in organic solutions, such as occurs in the fermenting of grapes to make wine. And this idea is mirrored in the psycho-spiritual stage it represents in the seeker’s journey. Fermentation is a two step process, which begins with Putrefaction.
In this stage,Hauk details, “matter is allowed to breakdown and decompose. The alchemists often added manure to help get the process going…The dead material seems to come to life again with an influx of digesting bacteria, as Fermentation begins.
“This new life force changes the fundamental nature of the material in what the alchemists saw as a process of spiritization [the second phase in Fermentation].
“Psychological Fermentation is the introduction of new life into the purified presence that developed during Conjunction. This child of the Conjunction, however, is really just a melding of opposites of the personality that may still be contaminated with traces of ego, so it is necessary to “sacrifice” it to bring about its resurrection on a new level of being.
“During psychological death or Putrefaction, the ‘child’ of the Conjunction, which is the strongest presence you can create within your earthbound personality, is exposed to the decadent humidity of your deepest and most clinging psychic components, the psychological manure in which most of us wallow.”
Hauk continues: “Fermentation then begins with the inspiration of spiritual power from Above that reanimates, energizes, and enlightens the blackened soul. It can be achieved through various activities that include intense prayer, desire for mystical union, breakdown of the personality, transpersonal therapy, psychedelic drugs, and deep meditation. In simplest terms, Fermentation is a living, loving inspiration from something totally beyond us, something existing wholly Above in the realm of pure mind.”
Like the first “nigredo” stage of Calcination, the Fermentation phase has been associated with the Dark Night of the Soul psychologically.
“Here, we undergo a type of rebirth,” observes Mistlberger, “resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements of [ourselves] that no longer serve our spiritual evolution. This marks the true beginning of inner initiation, of entry into a ‘higher’ life in which our best destiny has a chance to unfold.”
This stage is often associated with the peacock due its reported accompaniment of multi-colored visions upon entering the spiritization phase, known as “the peacock’s tail.”
6. Distillation (“It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”)
Chemically this stage involves the boiling and condensation of the fermented solution to increase its purity, such as takes place in the distilling of wine to make brandy.
“Psychologically,” Mistlberger details, “distillation represents a further purification process, being about an ongoing process of integrating our spiritual realizations with our daily lives—dealing with seeming mundane things with integrity, being as impeccable in our lives as we can be, and not using the inner work as a means by which to escape the world…
“…At this stage remaining impurities, hidden as ‘shadow’ elements in the mind, are flushed out and released, crucial if they are not to surface later on (a phenomena that can be seen to occur when a reputed saint, sage, or wise person, operating from a relatively advanced level of self-realization, appears to have a fall from grace).”
Mistlberger tells us that a common alchemical symbol for this stage is the Green Lion devouring the sun, suggesting “a robust triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.”
7. Coagulation (“Thus will you obtain the Glory of the Whole Universe. All Obscurity will be clear to you. This is the greatest Force of all powers, because it overcomes every Subtle thing and penetrates every Solid thing.” )
“This is closely connected to the idea of the Resurrection Body of mystical Christianity, or the Rainbow Body of Tibetan Buddhism, which includes the esoteric idea of the ability to navigate all possible levels (dimensions) of reality, without loss of consciousness.
“It is the form of the illumined and fully transformed human, in which matter has been spiritualized, or the spiritual has fully entered the material. Heaven and Earth seen as one, or as the Buddhists say, nirvana (the absolute, or formless) issamsara (the world of form). At this end stage, whatever we set eyes on we see the divine, as we have come to realize our own full divinity.”
Below, an alchemical woodcut depicts the Stone as eternally youthful and fully integrated. He controls the forces of duality and fends off any materialistic advances on his unified Soul and Spirit
“In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.
“The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia.” ~ Carl Jung